In my previous career, I was a Total Quality leader. One of the mantras for total quality is ‘if you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” In my current career, I work on social change. My new mantra is, “if you cannot name it, you cannot tame it.”
Last week I was a coach for the Idea Lab for the semifinalists in the University of San Diego’s Social Innovation Challenge. In this Idea Lab, the semifinalists were preparing their pitches for the finals. A few brave individuals even presented their rough 60 second pitches to the audience. One of the ideas was to start a semi-professional soccer team in Yuma, Arizona. Yes, the same infamous border town that I described in my other post on difficult conversations. In his pitch, he described Yuma as a border town citing demographic statistics such as the proportion of Hispanics and the unemployment rates there. Most of the feedback that he received from the audience was about how he should reword his description in a politically correct fashion so he doesn’t offend people. After the event, I was chatting with him about his project and specifically wanted to know about his reaction to the feedback that he received. His response was that he was just describing the place and it was not to offend anyone. He believed that the data he provided has the capacity to create a sense of urgency and help funders understand the importance of his project. Which I think is reasonable. Especially given that he is on the ground, engaging to change the dismal reality there.
This exchange set me thinking about how afraid we are to name something so scary like it is Godzilla. If we are so afraid to name something, how can we begin to even tackle it? This is both personal and political. Words are powerful, dangerous and frightening. They form our reality and create worlds. But when we are afraid of words, we are afraid of the world. We fear that naming it means people will judge us and condemn us as a whole. I think the more dangerous fear is that naming something will shine the mirror on us thus exposing us to ourselves. Gandhi and Dr. King did precisely that.
Saying it aloud that the future and relevance of the academy is at stake does not make me less invested in my students or the academy. Saying it aloud that sometimes I wonder if what I do even makes a little difference to the world does not make me less committed ot my profession. It inspires me to find ways to make a difference. Saying it aloud that capitalism was built on colonialism and environmental abuse does not make us utopian hippies. Only then we can find responsible alternatives. Saying it aloud that we have ways to go before we achieve our vision as a just and equitable society does not make us unpatriotic. Saying it aloud that obesity is a problem in our society does not make us tyrants. Saying it aloud that we want to love and be loved does not make us weak. Saying it aloud that we are for gun control does not make us constitution-opposers. Saying it aloud that maybe I cannot have all of it right now does not make any less of a feminist. Saying it aloud that Yuma is a border town with 4.5 times the unemployment rates of national average does not make one racist. That is merely a fact. Condemning them to that fate makes us irresponsible and completely devoid of humanity. Which is why I think the student had it right. He named it with no fear and is making an effort to change it.
BTW, Harry Potter was the only one unafraid to name Voldemort and we all know what happened.